Poet Sabata-mpho Mokae captured this sentiment best in his poetry reading when he spoke about the counterculture nature of African writers writing in the language of their country/tribe. It is unusual although he said it is becoming more common. The power of language, specifically the English language, was used to assimilate slaves into the North American culture and now allows African writers and black American writers to have exchanges on the basis of their struggles/current oppressions. Sabata-mpho Mokae also talked about the similarities and cultural exchange that can occur between African movements and movements in America.
These movements include the black lives matter movement/civil rights movement in America and movements in Africa against apartheid or to gain a country’s independence from their colonizers. While this exchange is great and allows for more dialogue between a people who have a direct ancestry, the historical trauma that comes out of the black body’s requirement to learn English also cannot be down played. As June Jordan mentions for Phillis Wheatley, English is the language of the white, used to further the brainwashing and socialization of any slaves that learned to read (Jordan 254) where Jordan refers to the English writing Wheatley encounters as “filth.”
At Sabata-mpho Mokae’s poetry reading, where he read from his book “Kanakotsame: In My Times,” a book about South African black urban life, he mentions that as a black South African your first language is English. There is no choice in this matter; one learns it by default even if it is to the detriment of learning one’s own native language, Setswana for example. In America there is also a disconnect with language because Ebonics, a slang version of English, is not readily accepted and is looked down upon by those in power. In the workplace or anywhere outside of a black person’s home, they are not allowed or are forcibly removed from spaces where they do not give in to speaking “proper” English. As I mentioned in my previous blog post there is a freedom and power in poetry that the black community can take a hold of.
Through poetry, one can find the community that Audre Lorde mentions, or can feel free to write in Setswana for someone like Sabata-mpho Mokae, or for Phillis Wheatley, to write and not be under the threat of death for simply writing at all. Through her writing, she could dispel myths about slavery and discover her own self even through the oppression of slavery (Jordan 255). June Jordan wrote this about Phillis Wheatley, “And she was the first. Come from a country of many tongues tortured by rupture, by theft, by travel like mismatched clothing packed down into the cargo hold of evil ships sailing, irreversibly, into slavery; poet is African in Africa, or Irish in Ireland, or French on the Left Bank of Paris, or white in Wisconsin. A Poet writes in her own language. A poet writes of her own people, her own history, her own vision” (Jordan 252). Although black Americans today may not be able to learn the language of the specific African country their ancestors were taken from, through poetry they can connect and create an open dialogue with African writers today as well as having the freedom to write in any language they choose is appropriate.
Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford. Spoken soul: The story of black English. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
By: Faith M. Owhonda